Why YouTube Subscribers Don’t Matter

In general, YouTube creators (and viewers) are a bit obsessed with sheer numbers of subscribers. It’s fool’s gold, friends. While early views are often predicated on developing a subscriber base, as a creator’s presence on YouTube matures, subscribers simply don’t matter nearly as much as people think. What matters is quality not quantity. I’d trade you half of my 250K subscribers for 1000 actively engaged viewers.

I say that to offset the prevailing belief that subscribers are everything, but recognize it’s a provocative overstament. A solid base of “fans” or avid viewers is invaluable. But after a while, the “subscription obsession” can be lazy and dangerous. Here’s why:

  • There was a time where we thought most subscribers viewed videos, and in fact that was more true in 2008-2009. Today (with the exception of a dozen top channels), the majority of views by the top 500 YouTubers are driven by “related videos” and micro-featuring (spotlighted videos). Almost 80-90 percent of my daily views (ranging about 200-250,000 daily) are not from subscribers, and “search” drives only about 1 percent. Obviously a healthy subscriber base (especially those who interact with the video) has a cascading effect on related videos and microfeaturing. But…
  • One loyal/active subscriber is worth more than 50 passive ones. Since only about 1 percent of viewers tend to interact with a video (and the creator’s relationship with his/her audience has a lot to do with that), the active viewer is GOLD. The passive troll (or dead account) is fool’s gold.
  • Let me put this in simple terms. Of the quarter of a million views I get, perhaps ONE PERCENT of those are driven by subscribers deciding to check my latest video. That fact initially demotivated me and I shared that with YouTube staffers: why kill myself making new videos if it barely makes a difference to daily views, which sets my income? Lately, however, it makes me highly motivated to create more regular and better videos to maintain and grow a recurring audience. Sure- I feel fortunate that I have some momentum from the thousands of hours and thousands of videos I’ve created since 2004, but also very nervous about losing that momentum because of a simple shift in YouTube’s “programming” or algorithm.
  • All subscribers are not created equally. Those who subscribe to my channel via “box-for-box” are often inadvertent viewers prone to leaving hate comments. As time goes on, you invariably increase the percentage of total subscribers who are not fans… they may find one video they like, subscribe, then complain or bail.
  • I define the “health” of a YouTube channel as the recurring views that recent videos get. So while I’m happy to be getting millions of views a month, they are radically tilted toward old videos. My new videos get seen, with some exception, about 20K times… which is just 10% of my total subscribers (250K I think, but I’ve stopped checking).
  • Even when I was about 100K subscribers and getting about 40-100K views per video, that was deceptive. First, a lot of those views came not from subscription but from the 10K plus people that would check my channel daily to see what’s new (that’s dropped). Also my recent videos were automatically adjacent to my legacy videos, which changed a few years ago. So what I saw as subscriber views were often driven by the dozen enduring videos (Scary Maze, Farting in Public). Now the videos that surround those are unlikely to be mine, thus the “binger” is less likely to get caught in a Nalts binge.
Being on the popular "BarelyPolitical" channel "additional channels" box drove #s but could have invited an audience that's a poor fit
  • Finally, I suspect that the increase in “trolls” on my Nalts channel may partially be the result of the kindness of BarelyPolitical to “box” me on its channel (this morning, I respectfully invited them to remove me from their “related channel” box). It drove high numbers of subscribers, but mostly people unfamiliar with me. For instance, my daughter posted a video last night (embarrassing brothers) and it fetched about 80 comments before day break… about 10 of them I needed to delete before she saw them. I expected the “get back to prank” comments, but the 10 were lude and clearly not people you want subbed.  The video, which is consistant with what I’ve been making for 5 years, is simply not going to please a typical BarelyPolitical subscriber. The trolls come from a variety of sources, but when I see people refer to me as a third person I generally assume they didn’t subscribe with any premeditation.

    So why is this important? It means independent creators are highly dependent on YouTube’s “programming,” which is currently an algorithm. If tomorrow YouTube made a change, my mature channel would evaporate instantly. These rules apply to all channels, but especially to those that have already built some momentum and wish to build on it…

    The New Rules…


    1. Stop checking subscription numbers and focus on the quality of your relationship with fervent fans.
    2. Produce regular videos. I used to post daily, and when I stopped (on advice of many that said they’d prefer a good video weekly than decent videos daily) I lost a lot of momentum. Frequency is as important as quality. We are creatures of habit, and we’ll push that peddle over and over as long as a food pellet comes out (or to use gambling terms, we’ll keep playing the slots as long as we occasionally get a prize). But after a while, people stop checking your channel for new content. A month or two of zero or poor content can produce enduring damage… people simply forget to check your channel.
    3. Produce what Ryan Nugent at YouTube calls “Temporal Programming.” Produce content about current events, and plan content around major events… Shark Week is a nice example, and so are videos posted days before a big event (post your 4th of July video on July first so it builds steam).
    4. Third, BYOA. Bring your own audience. Annoying Orange drives a large chunk of his views from a very popular Facebook page. I’ve not had as much luck driving traffic via other mediums, but “seeding” is another way to garner views. Produce content that a popular blogger may enjoy and let him/her know about it. Look for other ways to syndicate your YouTube content beyond YouTube.
    5. Reconsider your “ask.” Should you ask for comments/ratings/favorites? Sure. That’s what makes a video jump on YouTube’s “most viewed” charts. But also consider other “asks” of your audience… subscribe via e-mail, check every Friday, etc.

    The Onion used to publish online on Wednesdays, and I still wake up on Wednesdays and reflexively check (even though content is now regularly updated).

    The bottom line is that audience development is about building yourself into the habit/routine of an active audience, not by getting a quantity of lukewarm viewers via a magical orange button.

    Your Blog Voice is Hoarse

    Your blog sucks. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but if it’s any comfort… mine does too. So let’s together learn “the art of storytelling and the science of journalism.” A new book promises to help us find our authentic voice and “craft bold content that will resonate with prospects and buyers and encourage them to share it with others.”

    Content Rules (part of the "New Rules of Social Media") addresses content strategically and broadly -- from text to videos

    Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman just launched “Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business.” Here’s the book site, and the book on Amazon.

    Disclosure: It’s part of David M. Scott’s “New Rules of Social Media,” and my Beyond Viral is part of the same series, although its name is slightly shorter.

    I quite like this truism from a review on “Convince and Convert” by Jay Baer:

    The inherent tension in marketing is that companies always want to talk about themselves and their products or services. Everyone else, meanwhile, only wants to know what those products or services can do for them. Creating content as a cornerstone of your marketing allows you to truly place yourself in your customer’s shoes, to adopt their vantage points, and to consider their thoughts, feelings, and needs. In short, it allows you to get to know the people who buy from you better than any customer survey or poll ever could.

    Here’s a paragraph from the book to which I most relate.

    ann hadley
    True dat, yo.

    But a few nuggets regarding video from chapter 16’s “Video: Show Me the Story”:

    • Video content is 50 times more likely to appear on the first page of search results than your standard text-based content (citing Forrester Research)
    • Stop thinking that you need to make a viral video to be successful… focus on the story you are going to tell
    • When creating videos say yourself, “why would the people I want to reach want to watch this?”

    Free Web Seminar: Online-Video Secrets from Steve Garfield

    Steve Garfield,  the “Paul Revere of video blogging,” will join Pixability CEO Bettina Hein in a free 1-hour webinar on December 1, featuring latest trends in online video and related media. Topics include:

    • The benefits of marketing with online video
    • How to shoot video like a pro (recording, editing, exporting, etc)
    • How to build presence with video on the social web
    • How to increase views for your video

    Garfield also is raffling off ten copies of “Get Seen: Online Video Secrets.” Space is limited, so register now for the free webinar, held December 1, 2010 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

    Garfield’s book is part of David M. Scott’s “New Rules of Social Media,” which also includes my book (Beyond Viral).

    Weirder Book Comments Anyone?

    So the book site (BeyondViral) is pretty darned live for this weeks’ official release.

    From now on, if you put your hands in this position you're stealing intellectual property.

    Now c’mon WillVideoForFood “backrowers.” You’ve done majestically on Amazon’s ratings. Let’s show David M. Scott (he’s like the Fred of social media) how fun people respond to blogs. He and Steve Garfield helped get me into Wiley’s New Rules for Social Media, and he’s blogged about Beyond Viral. Who’s got some comment humor in him. Rumor has it even Sukatra’s got WVFF access from her phone.

    Who wants to read thoughtful reactions to literature? I’m guessing David M. Scott has never experienced a mathematical correction from Alexis (apparently “exponential” is not what I think), a bowel joke from Nutcheese or a Reubnick quip. Jan’s probably got a funky political angle. Here’s hoping Marquisdejolie links back one of his bazaar videos, a term I’d use more often but for Maryln. What ya got Punchy, Zack, Coffin, JimmerSD? How about my sisters and bro? They visit. Really.

    I got a few notes that the book is in stores, which tells me either:

    • This isn’t some elaborate prank on me, or a dream.
    • Or that I’m still dreaming

    Wow. I blog in my dreams? That’s kinda lame.

    Amazon sent me a gift certificate for free copies, but I think I’m going to use it to buy a remote-controlled airplane toy with a video camera instead.

    5 Ways to Make Star-Sponsored Videos Flourish on YouTube

    Daisy Whitney’s “New Media Minute” covers the ongoing story of YouTube, its partners and advertisers. Prompted by MediaWeek’s “Placement Police” article, it seems the Wild West is getting settled.

    Whitney shows some of my Fox “Fringe” parodies, and discusses Hitviews, for whom I’m chief strategical officer.

    med men on youtube

    Here’s what I believe is “the least advertisers and YouTube partners need to know” about sponsored videos via YouTube “stars”:

    1. YouTube hasn’t yet, to my knowledge, deleted a video or terminated a partner over this. They have the right, but don’t want to alienate the portion of banwidth (partners) that is revenue producing and keeps audiences returning.
    2. It’s really unethical for an advertiser to get an idea about a YouTube “star” from Google/YouTube sales person, and then circumvent YouTube to avoid media spending. I’ve said no to the terms of one attractive ad deal when I learned that my Google advocate (who brought me to a leading brand) was being “shut out” of a deal he created. We’re still working it out.
    3. A sponsored video should never be “monetized” with additional overlay (InVideo) or Google text ads. This could create conflicting advertisers, which is good for neither YouTube or the sponsor (if you’re Coke commissioning a sponsored video, do you really want to see a Pepsi pop-up ad)?
    4. When a partner cuts a deal directly with an advertiser, the distributor (YouTube) is “shut out.” Therefore YouTube has no incentive to promote the video through a variety of means now available to other “monetized” content. This isn’t sustainable or scalable.
    5. Eventually we’ll have ways to scale programs… and ensure the partner, YouTube and advertiser benefit. One way might include a sponsor also buying InVideo ads… or other pay-per-view, pay-per-click, pay-per-impressions to help get the video scale beyond the partner’s audience. This will help a sponsor’s video with a specific partner get far more reach, and ensure that YouTube as the distributor is fairly compensated for promoting and paying that bandwidth bill.

    Thanks for the congratulations, Ms. Daisy Whitney. Glad you’ve got a mess full o’ sponsors yourself, and I applaud their targeted marketing (versus the old “rent an ignored booth at the giant trade show” method).

    Here’s a sneak preview of the new NaltsConsulting site. It needs some work, and the name is rather dull. But I’ve had a number of people advise on sticking with the Nalts brand.

    The 7 Things Every Marketer Should Know About Online Video

    Here is the fresh new list of 7 things every marketer should know about online video. This will be on the final exam, and it’s not “open book.” Remember folks, I’m not the greatest marketing director in history. And I’m certainly not the best online-video creator (even though I’m the second Google result when you search “fart”). But I don’t know many other people that have a leg firmly placed in each world… marketing and online video.

    This list can save you months of research, reduce your risks, impress your colleagues and help you lost 20 pounds in 2 weeks. 


    1. They’re Here. Your customers are watching exponentially more videos online than they were 6-12 months ago. Don’t pull a Bud.tv, but recognize that “watching and experimenting” can be as dangerous as making calculated investments in the space and measuring them. 
    2. Buyer’s Market. The ROI of reaching customers via online-video is better today than ever before because it’s a buyer’s market. Assess your options, run tests, measure and scale. But if you spend the next six months on the first step, you’ll lose revenue potential and find the space shifted while you were stuck in “ready, aim” mode.
    3. Find a Sherpa. A calculated investment means you’ve done 3 things- you’ve been prudent about your spending, followed the rules of social media, and analytical on results. The best way to be prudent and stay within social media is to find a “sherpa” who has learned the mountain. Someone who already knows the taste of success, and the pain of making a mistake. 
    4. Analyze Impact: Every stupid list has a “measure and improve” step, but let’s get specific. Very few brands will measure online-video’s direct impact on sales. Likewise, I can’t tell you that paid search is selling my product, but I’ve doubled its budget every year because  have good assumption-based ROI models. If you can’t track sales, simply do a test/control or pre/post using the next realistic proxy measure/driver of sales (enrollment, site visit, intent, awareness). 
    5. Measure Persuasiveness Not Impressions. If you read the third tip, then we agree that impressions is the worst proxy ever. A video view is different from the fraction of a percent of banner impressions that actually get registered by the human eye. We know that, and we accept that if we engage a prospect in an entertaining and persuasive manner for 30-90 seconds, than we’ve increased intent to purchase. Just like a good salesperson is more effective than a brochure, video is the most visceral, engaging and persuasive form of mainstream media… especially if the audience connects with the star. If impressions are exciting to your boss, then stick with nickel CPMs via ad networks. There’s a reason they’re a nickel. 
    6. Please Don’t Just Advertise. You’re going to use this channel to advertise- brands will always advertise. But think beyond the ad play– it’s public relations, sponsorship and product placement too. An online-video star is like a small network or publication. He or she has a loyal audience, and you want to be more than an ad. You want to be a giveaway on Oprah or a Coke cup on the American Idol judges table. 
    7. Find Existing Crowds, Don’t Try Gathering Them. Please don’t invest in your own content or building a brand-focused entertainment channel (bud.tv). Nobody cares about your brand but you. Find people that have spent the past two years growing audiences who have “asses in seats.” Don’t put on a broadway show about your product- participate in the show that’s already “standing room only.”

    nalts youtube poop

    Special WVFF Forum for Cheese Videos!

    It was too hard to surf the comment threads of old WVFF posts regarding such an important topic as the Cheese Videos, so we at WillVideoForFood.com have created a special forum thread.

    Visit the Official Will Video For Food Cheese Forum Thread now, and vote on the creator(s) who most assaulted the dignity of cheese.

    If you haven’t posted a cheese video yet, it’s never too late. Just be sure to tag it with the following words:

    naked cheese video american zardoz short film airplane pizzle sore feltch

    Also, it’s important to add the word “VIDEO” to your title. That way it will rank high when people search Google for “CHEESE VIDEO(s).”

    Hey- thanks to the Revver Editors for featuring Naked Cheese! I respect your taste.

    Revver recognizes brilliance of Naked Cheese by Nalts

    Vital links:


    Three Golden Rules of Online-Video Creation

    Nalts is Moses (not God)For years I’ve written countless words about “do this” and “don’t do this” related to online video creation. Some of this applies to amateurs or pros, and some to advertisers and brands. Today’s advice pertains to three “Golden Rules”, and it’s important for all of us- but especially creators.

    Let’s look at the Three Biggest Mistakes made by online video creators (and that does include “viral campaigns”):

    1. Emphasizing quality over cost.
    2. Believing good content will get seen.
    3. Caring about what the audience thinks.

    Now you skeptics just mentally formulated the three following counterpoints while reading the Big 3 Mistakes above. I’m right, aren’t I?

    1. Higher production value generally means the content is better
    2. The social aspect of the web means good stuff rises and bad stuff dies
    3. The most savvy creators listens to audiences and predicts them, thus creating content that’s more popular.

    The good news is that your counterpoints are indeed accurate. The bad news is that if you live by them, you’re going to be broke, frustrated and unsatisfied in your work. I promise. And a promise is a promise. So today, Uncle Nalts will serve up the 3 Golden Rules that shall guide you on your path to online-video sustainability. They’re subject to change as the market matures, but who cares?  If you succeed you’ll find your own reasons to explain it. And if you fail, you won’t soon return to this post because it will piss you off.

    Golden Rule #1: At all costs, manage costs. There STILL isn’t a safe online-video monetization model (advertising, purchase, rent) for the majority of video content online. This is actually good news for amateurs like me, because we’ll sustain while better creators come and go — studios simply can’t justify a team of writers, producers, directors, actors, editors on the hopes of finding an audience (that day will come perhaps). I certainly am not the best video creator, but I’m probably one of the most profitable. I write, shoot, edit, and act… So I don’t have costs beyond my excesive time (which I justify by joy, not an hourly wage) and the nominal amount I spend on equipment and variable fees. Most of the people in my videos are acting for fun like I do, and occasionally I’ll pay them with bribes and gift cards.

    Golden Rule #2: Good Content is Not Popular. It’s time you separate your notions of what’s good and what’s popular. You couldn’t have predicted 10 years ago that a cup of coffee would cost more than a gallon of gasoline — and that you’d bitch about gas prices while sucking down your overpriced moca frapolati venti with vanilla sprinkles. Good isn’t popular, and popular isn’t good. Does that mean you strive for popularity? Nope. That’s like trying to change the direction a boat is taking by hoping the wake shifts direction. But don’t lose hope here! Nalts doesn’t drop crap on your desk without telling you how to clean it. The lesson is that you’re responsible for getting your videos seen if you want your videos to be seen. I’ll bet you’ve been obsessing on what you do before you hit upload, and subconciously starving everything that happens after that (as if it’s beneath you). Don’t pimp and spam it (I know some video creators that should be Amway reps), but invest in some gentle efforts to get the video to a relevant audience. If the video is about cheese, did you remember to send it the cheese blogger? He’s got an audience of cheese lovers, and not much else to write about.

    Golden Rule #3: Screw The Audience. I’m serious. This is really, really hard to do. There are times where you’re hypercharged by the feedback and audience interaction. It’s validating, it helps hone your storytelling, and it’s instant gratification. But almost no online-video creator is at risk of losing touch with their audience — the medium consumes them. Rather, most popular creators lose their steam because they focus on feeding the audience instead of instinct. What began as a fun outlet becomes an obligation. Experimentation becomes repetition of a formula that seems to work (Zipster08 and SMPFilms have, interestingly, spun off LocoMama and a Sparta the Cat channel the same week — these were recurring bits that grew and sustained much of their audiences, but fatigued others). By focusing on the audience above all, desperation and frustration sets in. The remedy for artistic sustainability is caring less. Get back to doing what’s fun and ignoring the “you’ve lost your edge” cold-prikly comments but also the “that’s the best video you’ve done” warm fuzzies. Every video creator I know (and I know a lot of you) pays too much attention to feedback, and I’m quite confident it’s the root cause of death spirals (including my own). For you advertisers, I’d adapt this rule as follows: don’t follow the formula because it’s already been done. The best judge of future viral failure is past viral success.

    Moses has spoken.